It’s the end of a year, the end of a decade, and like so many I cannot help but look back at the vastness of the mountains I climbed and reflect on the depths of the valleys into which I plummeted. In this past decade I listened to the terrible silence—the seconds that last more than eternities—while waiting for a baby to take her first breath, and I heard the infinite, numbing silence that follows in the moments after a young husband takes his last.
I started this decade as a newlywed with nothing but hopes and dreams in my heart. I ended it as a young widow solo parenting two children, with a heart that has been broken and patched together more times than I can count.
Year by year, these are the lessons I learned in the joy, the heartbreak, and all the moments in between.
In 2010, the baby growing in my belly, the one whose kicks were mine to feel, the one who was soothed by my heartbeat and my voice, the one who I’d dreamed of during months of trying for a baby, stopped moving. After a routine test, the doctor burst into my hospital room and said the baby was dying. At just 31 weeks pregnant, I was wheeled into an emergency operating room and the baby was removed. Her cry didn’t come. Too many heartbeats were lost to the eternities during which her breath didn’t come. When it did, there was a chance she wouldn’t make it through the night.
In 2010, I learned that mothers aren’t born, they are made, forged in the burning will to protect a helpless life you just met and shaped by the late night deals made with fate when it seems that the sun may never rise again. I learned that hope can exist in the moments that seem most hopeless.
In 2011, my son was born, without incident, without drama, without a single painkiller, and I learned that the past doesn’t define the present. What was once will not necessarily be again.
I learned that there’s a kind of courage in knowing it could all go wrong, but choosing to hope that this time it’ll be okay.
We—my little family of four—bought our dream house in 2012. We walked through the doors and saw the future we always wanted for our family playing out in the streaks of sunlight pouring through the family room windows. We talked of forever as we unpacked boxes. I spent my entire life moving around, staying in one home no longer than three years, and in 2012, I learned what it was to feel at home for the first time.
I learned that home is more than walls and roofs and pieces of furniture that are assembled incorrectly; home is the people who are decorating the walls and checking the roof for leaks and laughing at the lopsided furniture.
In 2013, we found our place in a community of young parents trying to make sense of world that was rapidly changing from the one our parents had raised children in. Growing up as a first generation American, a daughter of immigrants, and a product of divorced parents when divorce was something scandalous, I’d never felt normal. I’d always been other—different. My lunch bag was filled with foods that didn’t look familiar and my dad wasn’t at the soccer field cheering me on. But in 2013, I was just another young mother with two toddlers in tow; I was just another young wife looking for a babysitter for a Friday night. I was just another woman, slipping into Lululemon leggings to work out while the kids went to nursery school, and somehow I found myself telling stories of my childhood—the good, the bad, and the improbable, but true.
In 2013, I learned the joy of fitting in, because there is a joy in being surrounded by people who understand the day you might have had just by the tired look in your eyes, but also, I learned to appreciate the beauty in being different, of having a story that no one else can tell.
I started setting my alarm clock for 5 a.m. in 2014, trying to carve out a few minutes of time that belonged only to me. I started writing in those quiet moments before the sun rose, unsure whether I had words or stories that were worth telling, but wanting to believe that I did. I stared at a screen. I typed and deleted. I wrote stories that will hopefully be hidden away forever on a hard drive in a box in a basement somewhere. I wrote a story that won an award.
I learned that sometimes the hardest word is the first word, that sometimes the right story takes time to write. I learned that the sky sometimes looks pink before the sunrise and that there’s a beautiful kind of grace in watching the day begin while hoping that your voice has value, in believing that it does.
We—my little family of four—took a trip to Disney in 2015. I learned that there’s a difference between a trip and a vacation. I learned I’m not actually a Disney person—maybe not the most important lesson of the decade, but one that I will never forget. (I also learned I have the patience of a five-year-old when waiting on line and maybe I should work on that.)
In 2016, my young husband was diagnosed with a brain cancer plagued by dismal survival rates. He underwent surgery to remove the tumor that was the size of a tennis ball from his front lobe. We went to doctors who told us to get our affairs in order and other doctors who told us we could fight. I learned that statistics are nothing but numbers, and that a five percent survival rate can be a lifeline and reason to hope. I learned that fear sometimes feels like a thousand knives slashing your skin all at once. I learned that hope is sometimes the spark that reminds you to breathe when pain has made even the simple act of inhaling and exhaling an impossibility.
In 2017, I watched a disease steal my husband in mind and body as he continued to stand up after falling down, continued to do the work, even as the work became nearly impossible to do. I watched a doctor continue to fight alongside us, even after all the other doctors had given up hope, because she knew we needed to believe there was a fight left to fight, because she knew we—that little family of four—needed a reason to try to stand upright, try to breathe, when everything was hanging by the most fragile thread.
In those moments, watching my husband relentlessly battle a disease that stole him in bits and pieces, I learned perseverance. I learned that sometimes perseverance is walking out of a hospital room unsure that you can take even one more step, but taking that step. I learned that sometimes perseverance is walking across the broken, jagged pieces of your heart while carrying the too heavy weight of the day because there is no other choice.
I learned loss in 2018; I learned the heartbreak in saying “me” instead of “we.” Sitting in a quiet room, lit only by a single lamp, desperate to make sense of the absoluteness of death, the permanence of the word, I learned that taking that first breath after someone you love takes their last is the most painful breath you could take. Standing beside my husband’s grave, I learned that sometimes your world cracks in half and you fall and no one can catch you. I learned happily ever after isn’t guaranteed.
But I also learned that sometimes the universe finds ways to comfort you. I learned to find something beautiful in a streak of sunshine cutting through the clouds. I learned that loss doesn’t make you stronger, but it can help you see the beauty in broken things and that’s as invaluable as breath in a world where hope isn’t always enough.
In the final year of the 2010s, as I started writing for larger audiences, I held out those broken, jagged pieces of my heart to people and places and hoped they would know how to put the pieces back together, smooth those razor sharp edges. I gave parts of myself to people who didn’t know how to be gentle with those pieces, who accidentally crushed them in their hands because they didn’t know how fragile those pieces were. And for that, I blamed myself, raged at myself, until I learned how to forgive myself.
In 2019, I learned to forgive the parts of me that are trying to survive by any means necessary, the parts that make mistakes, the parts that don’t want to do the hard work of moving forward because it simply is too hard, but are doing the work, anyway.
I learned to find grace for the imperfections.
What I learned in this decade, these ten years during which I have brought a life into this world and helplessly watched a life exit, is that hope never truly disappears; it simply changes shape. Sometimes hope is found in the whispered plea in the middle of the night and sometimes it exists in the irritated breath in a never-ending line. Sometimes it’s found in a poorly constructed bookshelf or in a friendship that leaves space for all your differences to flourish. Sometimes you hope for the miracle and sometimes you hope for the strength to heal from wounds that have forever changed you.
What I learned in this decade is that hope may not be a supportive and sturdy ground on which to walk. Hope may be only beautiful and ethereal. But sometimes beautiful and ethereal things have wings. And sometimes, when you have wings, you don’t need to walk when it’s too hard. You can find a way to fly.
I don’t know what lessons the 2020s will hold.
I hope there will be more joy. I hope the heartbreak—because I know it will exist—won’t destroy me. I hope the lessons of the 2010s will help someone else, another new mother, another woman who never quite fit in, another admitted Disney disliker, another wife, another widow.
I hope I always remember to hope.